It’s the afternoon in Southern California and I’m browsing Facebook in my apartment. This time of year, social media is full of my favorite things: college football, political propaganda, and pictures of children going to school.
Okay, I’m lying when I say these are my favorite things. They’re not.
Football and political propaganda both contain too much brain cell loss to hold my interest. After the last debate, I took myself off the field for a concussion checkup. But the third item on the list, the near endless photo stream of small humans going off to school, that’s the element I find my dislike of the most baffling. Disturbing, even. Why don’t I care about your kid’s first day? Including college and my masters, I’ve spent about seventeen years of my life going to school. I know all about going to school. I am an expert on going to school, damn it! I should have empathy, right?
And yet, I don’t care.
This bothers me. There’s something about a first day of school picture that cuts to the back of my brain. My gut says to ignore it, but my head won’t let the annoying guilt go. I mean, why should I care? Why do I want to care? It’s not my kid.
Puzzled, I sit at the desk and procrastinate doing something productive. Devoid of focus, my mind wanders, walking down the halls of history. My history, at least. Perhaps there are answers to be found.
A few years ago, I moved to California.
Traveling across the United States is a long way to go. Taking the Southern route through Missouri, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, my father, my uncle, and I drive my compact SUV (I will never call it a station wagon, but you might) past lots and lots and lots of super exciting scenery. The first day everything feels new. On the third day, everything is hot, dusty, and if you have to spend one more minute in the car with these people you’re bound to just quit. But you don’t because there’s an odd momentum to such an endeavor. The constant newness propels you forward for fear that if you stick around in one place, you might get comfortable and, when faced with the immensity of the road left to travel, may never get going again. The Grand Canyon offers such a detour, and it is every bit as majestic as you imagine.
Except due to the elevation, my breathing is impaired, so I have no qualms about not hanging around. I’ll visit it again someday, probably with my jetpack.
When we merrily reach the Golden State, and get me settled in to my apartment, the surreal feeling of being somewhere completely different continues to pervade my everything. When I drop Father and Uncle off at the airport, we say goodbye but there’s not much time. One isn’t allowed to show emotion in front of airports these days, what would people think? Driving home, alone, but surrounded by everyone else on the freeway, I ask myself when all of this will start to feel normal.
I don’t have an answer, but I suspect about two months.
The next week I attend orientation for Graduate School.
One session of the introductory seminars involves a walking tour. I don’t exactly enjoy walking tours. Why not have riding tours? Or picture tours? I’m not stimulated by seeing buildings on foot, so please tour me with interpretative dance. These are the demands I never have the courage to make when confronted with a walking tour. On this tour, I manage to keep up with the group for the first building, but when the guide casually announces we’re walking a few blocks to campus, I casually announce I’ll just meet them there in my car. The cheerful blonde guide says that will be just fine, sweetie. Okay, she doesn’t say sweetie, and I don’t even remember if she was blonde, but characterizing her as such makes what I do next all the more rakish.
I slink off to my car and drive a few blocks to my apartment. Walking tours are for suckers.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Chris, if you always skip the walking tour, then you have no actual evidence to make your case that they are, in fact, useless garbage and really should be replaced with interpretative dance, or throat singing. Au contraire, I say. Au contraire, au contraire, au contraire! I say it three times because it’s fun to say. Contrary to the assertion I’ve accused you of making (I did mention I watched the recent debate), I have completed a walking tour before.
Four years earlier, somewhere on the jazzy East side of Cleveland, I went to University.
The orientation for university involves a walking tour. Higher education loves a walking tour. Because of the large campus and my inability to walk far distances, I use a mobility scooter instead of walking. Does this make the walking tour a scooter tour? Maybe, but the majority of the participants were walking and I believe in democracy when it suits me. There are plenty of other stories about The Scooter & The Student Lifestyle, but these will have to wait. On this walking/scooter tour, I pay careful attention to the locations of the disability accessible doors and note the paths to reach them without causing a kerfuffle. The problem with these electronic, motorized doors that open at the push of a button is that they work about two-thirds of the time. The other one-third of the time, you’re hitting a button, nothing is happening and you inevitably break a commandment in frustration. Also, during high pedestrian traffic, they cause a kerfuffle, and when you’re already on a kerfuffle-causing scooter, the extra kerfuffle is caustic salt in the self-conscious wound. Kerfuffle is also fun to say, but that’s not relevant. The important thing to know is I mapped out in my mind all the routes I needed to remember on this walking tour.
First day of class, I felt prepared. I wasn’t.
Bright and early Monday morning, I’m racing the couple of blocks to class on my scooter. I get to the building in good time, but it’s not one we covered in the walking tour. I have no idea where this particular disability entrance is located. I follow my fellow students up a sidewalk path to what looks like a clear access to the front doors, but there’s a few steps deviously hidden from view. Even two steps is enough to prevent me from charging ahead on the scooter. Stymied, I refuse the urge to panic. This isn’t the first screw up I’ve had on a commencing day of school.
At least this time, I’m not dodging 70 mile per hour traffic.
Four more years earlier, on a hilltop ten minutes from home, I went to High School.
There are only two public high schools in my home county. Of course, they’re bitter rivals, but the one I attended is clearly the better institution. The other high school allegedly had a milkshake machine, though, but that’s also not relevant.
Milkshake. Miiiiiiiilk. Shaaaaaaaake. Okay, enough.
My first day of high school begins in the car. Carpooling with two of my friends, we head towards the maw of secondary education together. One of my friend’s father, who must remain nameless for his protection so let’s call him Mr. Green, drives us to school. Because our high school is on a hilltop off the interstate, one has to get off at the correct exit or else be forced to drive a few, time-wasting miles to the next exit. Unlike California, the wonderful freeways of West Virginia do not have exits every 10 feet. As you may have already surmised, on the first day of high school, Mr. Green misses the exit.
Of all the terrifying things to happen, this is one I had not expected.
In the backseat, panic reigns but we keep a tight lid on it, except my friend who’s father has just missed the exit. He may have said some words and broken a few commandments. Determined to get us to high school on time, Mr. Green resorts to drastic measures. Immediately past the missed exit, there’s an opening in the median between the two directions of interstate traffic. These are labeled for emergency vehicles but the only people I’ve seen use them are cops with radar guns. Mr. Green accurately assesses our situation as an emergency and takes appropriate action. He swings the car into the forbidden, gravel strewn middle section of the interstate. With calm nerve he deftly pulls a U-turn and we return to the flow of traffic.
He doesn’t miss the exit.
There is a moment, a few hours later on the first day of high school where I think there’s no way I can handle it. The size of the school, the number of much larger students bustling around, and even the rigor of the coursework all intimidate me. This moment of doubt occurs in Japanese class. I look out the window, at the gorgeous forested hillside we from WV take for granted, and I contemplate being home schooled. I knew a guy who was home schooled. I could probably hang out with him, I think, but then I see two of my friends from the neighborhood in class with me. I don’t want to leave them, and I don’t want to get left behind, so I decide to stick it out.
The next day goes much better.
Traipsing farther back in time, the details fuzz and blend together. I can’t tell you my thoughts and feelings on the first day of middle school, the 6th grade, because I don’t remember it. What I do recall is being excruciatingly bored in 5th grade and worried about changing clothes in gym. Maybe my lack of distinct memory is because the middle school and elementary school I attended were in the same building. I walked three blocks from my house for the first 8 years of my education. This was back when I could walk three blocks, but that, like the scooter story, is a tale for another day.
The beginning of this particular memory lane starts with the move from Nashville to Huntington and entering the 1st grade, epic-style, in media res. The teacher in Nashville was a mean lady. In contrast, the teacher in Huntington, and the students in my new class, were warm to me, a tiny kid who looked different. They made me feel like I belonged, and on a first day, I believe there is no better gift.
I still talk to some of those classmates, two decades later. One of them calls me every year, just to make sure I’m doing okay.
So where does this leave us? I don’t really know for sure. Having taken a ramble through my past, I feel only slightly more empathetic towards the current crop of youngsters headed to school for their first days. Maybe I’m too jaded. Maybe I’ve had too many first days to fully appreciate them anymore. Perhaps, like with West Virginia’s natural beauty, I take for granted the overwhelming feeling only a first day can bring.
Am I alone in this? Possibly.
On the first day of anything, one inevitably feels alone, if even for a moment. All I can promise is that I’m going to try. I’m going to try to care about your child’s first day portfolio on Facebook, because I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. And while my mind is full of many things of great importance, there remains the nagging voice that says if I don’t make space to connect, if I don’t make room to appreciate, if I can’t find it in myself to understand the excitement, the fear, and the sheer exhilaration of a first day, then maybe there aren’t anymore first days left in my life.
This thought makes me tremble, so I’m going to click Like on your kid’s picture. Just don’t expect me to comment. Who knows what I’ll say?